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Trippy Travel: the Iron Man & Ringo reunion

Thursday, 16 June 2022, Chicago-to-Denver

Visiting National Parks - indeed, almost any travel - provides so much more satisfaction when shared with others. (Witness the outstanding time I had with Clark - err, Sandy - getting lost in Congaree NP). I now looked forward to a week traveling with Bill - a.k.a. Iron Man - in the Dakotas.

I met Bill following my sophomore year at Colorado State University, when a smooth-talking junior convinced us that selling books door-to-door in Michigan would be an exciting and lucrative (and fun!) way to spend our Bicentennial summer. We ended up as roommates in Big Rapids, MI. While driving from Colorado to Nashville for training, the people Bill carpooled with all fell asleep, and he drove for 24 hours. Thus arose his nickname of Iron Man.

My nickname had a more prosaic origin. No, I never wore rings, or ordered onion rings, or fixed doorbells. Close friends wanted to hang a sobriquet on me, but they thought that 'Glengo' had no cachet, so they settled on Ringo instead.

Iron Man and I struck up a friendship that has already lasted over 40 years. During my last summer of college, we would drive to Rocky Mountain NP once or twice a week, exploring different hiking trails. We usually started late, passing people coming down the trail. We would ask, "How much longer to reach the (lake, waterfall, overlook)?" Whatever time span they answered, we would always finish in half that time.

After graduating, I moved to California... then back to Colorado... then eastern Washington state... then North Carolina, southern Maryland, and finally Pennsylvania. Bill spent his whole life living in Fort Collins, CO. (I envied his stability.) Wherever I found myself, Bill would find time to visit me, and we would head off to hit more NPS sites (shown here at Little River Canyon National Preserve in Alabama).

While we both lived in Colorado, we took several road trips though the west, or flew to the southeast, each time adding to our parks list. (The Dakotas trip would revisit parks we saw during those years.) In 1990, we spent three weeks bicycling and camping in New Zealand. In 1992, he essentially served as my best man when Sue and I tied the knot in Rocky Mountain NP. And for several days in the summer of 1994, he joined Sue and me on our Litterwalk.

Traveling with Iron Man is a true treat. I can recall no arguments or fights that ever poisoned the atmosphere. We both love hiking and bicycling, and have reasonably comparable abilities. (Though I do recall the cycling in New Zealand: whenever we faced a big hill, I would always eat his cycling dust.) We like similar foods (though I could never match his tolerance for spicy foods). We share political views. Even more importantly, he would always laugh at my jokes, no matter how lame. (Of course, Sandy/Clark also laughed at my lame jokes in Congaree, and offered a few of his own.)

Bill could always make friends. I got ahead of him bicycling in New Zealand once when he had a flat. By the time he caught up to me, he had received an invitation for us stay at a local family's house. Way to charm the natives, Bill! (His charisma didn't always work - like the time in our bookselling summer, when the chief of police in Fremont, MI, gave him a ride to the edge of town and told him to "go back the way you came.")

So I looked forward to again spending a week with my travel buddy. First, though, I had to get to Colorado. By the time my dates had firmed up, inflation had kicked in, and airfares had taken off. After several online searches, I found a fare a couple hundred dollars less than that offered by the major carriers. But could I trust an airline named Key Lime Air?

I first worried whether Key Lime Air ranked as a super-discount airline, charging fees for everything from carry-on bags to the oxygen we breathed. Checking their website (they also operated as Denver Air Connection) quickly dispelled those fears - not only do they not charge for your first checked bag, a second bag also would fly free. (I passed on the notion of buying another suitcase just to enjoy that perk.) I still had my doubts, and had to call O'Hare Airport to find out at which terminal I could find them.

On Thursday, I arrived almost three hours before my 2:30 flight, not taking any chances. I had to walk by kiosks and check-ins for every other terminal-3 airline before finding the Denver Air counter - which had no one there. The note at the counter said they only staffed this position about 2 hours before their morning flight, ditto for the afternoon flight. I plopped down in an out-of-the-way corner of floor (no chairs nearby) and busied myself writing in my journal.

Sure enough, at 12:15 a woman magically appeared behind the counter. After giving her time to power up her computer, I stepped up and handed out my first rose along with my checkable bag. She gave me a smile, slapped a tag on the bag, and pointed out where I must drop it off.

I now had over an hour to wander the K & L concourses, handing out roses to overstressed gate agents handling the travel crush. At 1:30 I worked my way back to gate L11A, shared by Key Lime/Denver Air and Cape Air. The gate signs still displayed details for the latest (already-departed) Cape Air flight, without a gate agent in sight.

As the minutes ticked by, I noticed other fliers milling about, looking at the gate signs, then at their boarding pass, looking confused. Finally, at 1:50 the gate agent arrived. Surprise! It was the woman who'd checked my bag! She flashed me a smile, called a few passengers to approach the gate - and then said she'd be back and disappeared.

Twenty minutes later she returned and got the passengers to line up. She then opened the doors, led us down the steps, across the tarmac, and herded us onto the bus that would take us to the plane. And driving the bus was - Yes! our Multi-tasking Mama! As we exited the bus, I asked her whether she would also fly the plane. Out came another smile.

Our plane ran on the small side. Not Boeing, not Airbus, we would fly an Embraer jet that could hold up to 50 passengers.

I recalled from my days working at Boeing that my company had negotiated buying a stake in Embraer (based in Brazil). Ultimately, that deal fell through.

The flight attendant shepherded us up the ramp onto the jet. "No assigned seats, just pick an available seat. Please do not take a seat in the first five rows." (Since each row had three seats, 2/3 of the seats were window seats.) Later, when the attendant served drinks, I asked if she would serve each flier a slice of key lime pie. {I'm sure the rose I gave her made her more tolerant of my jokes.]

Did I mention the flight was a one-stop flight? The itinerary listed ORD (Chicago O'Hare) to ATY to DEN. ATY? I had to Google it: Watertown, SD, population 22,655 in 2020, the fifth largest city in South Dakota. [Let me suggest for a town motto: "We're number five! Don't give us no jive!"] When we landed next to what looked like a subdivision by a lake, half our passengers deplaned, and even more boarded for the Denver leg. [I can just imagine what the radio traffic here must sound like: " Hello, Air Traffic Control. This is Cropduster one-niner-one, looking for clearance to land...]

All told, the flight went well, despite my fretting, and we landed on time. By the time I hiked across the tarmac, hiked the length of concourse C, caught the DIA train, and navigated the construction cones to find baggage claim, my suitcase waited on the carousel, Iron Man waited in the cell phone lot, and I looked forward to getting underway.

Bring on the next adventures!

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